Clifford Coffin: The Varnished Truth – Photographs from Vogue 1945 to 1955

13 June – 28 September 1997

Curated by Robin Muir

Corresponding publication: Clifford Coffin: Photographs from Vogue 1945-1955 Edited and with text by Robin Muir (Schirmer/Mosel Verlag, 1997)

 

Press Release

Clifford Coffin (1913-1972) is known to a handful of admirers as the greatest of Vogue magazine’s ‘lost’ photographers. But for over a decade, in London, Paris and New York, he produced some of Vogue’s most impeccably elegant fashion pictures. A separate body of work – his portraits for Vogue – is equally fascinating as a trenchant observation of art and society across the globe in the post-war years. As well as covering the couture collections for Vogue on two memorable occasions, 1948 and 1954, he took one of the few photographs of Christian Dior at his inaugural ‘New Look’ collection of 1947. He also nurtured the careers of a generation of models including Wenda Rogerson (Mrs Norman Parkinson), Barbara Goalen and Suzy Parker, and discovered Elsa Martinelli and Audrey Hepburn, who worked with him as a model in Paris.

As a portraitist for the magazine’s ‘Spotlight’ pages, he photographed many of his subjects at the outset of their careers. Truman Capote and Arthur Miller (1948), Gore Vidal (1949), Lucian Freud and Richard Attenborough (1947), as well as more internationally well-known figures such as Gloria Swanson, Lady Diana Cooper, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams.

His adaptation of the ‘ring light’, used in cosmetic dentistry, had a far-reaching effect on studio lighting and on the technique of photographers of future generations, including David Bailey, Helmut Newton and Nick Knight, who have all used electronic versions of his discovery.

That he is so little-known outside the fashion world has much to do with his own ambivalent attitude towards self-promotion. He felt too that he never ‘fitted in ‘– ‘He was a weird, wild man,’ wrote Vogue model Wilhemina. ‘He used to throw the editors down the staircase’ and added that ‘He should have lived in the sixties. He was witty, bitchy and for the dull fifties shockingly so.’ When he achieved what he wanted, financially and artistically, he slipped effortlessly from view, leaving his work in the offices of Vogue London and New York. He oversaw no exhibitions of his work nor produced, like many of his colleagues, books of his vintage photographs. Only one print has ever appeared at auction. His lifestyle also hastened an early retirement. As his workload escalated (at one point, for his advertised work, he was one of the world’s highest-paid photographers), his health disintegrated and he suffered bouts of alcoholism and drug addiction. But his professionalism behind the lens has never been disputed: ‘He taught all who worked with him a lesson in dedication,’ wrote Vogue in 1966. ‘Nothing was too much trouble. In his search for what he wanted he reduced his models to tears, fashion editors to desperation and himself to complete exhaustion. From the rubble of emotion emerged a perfect cool picture.’

His New York studio was destroyed by fire in the mid-sixties and nothing could be salvaged, so all that remains is his collection with Vogue which, after nearly fifty years in its archives in London and New York, deserves re-evaluation once more.

He died in Pasadena, California, in 1972 aged 58.

Press Notices

‘It is hard to think of Coffin with anything but admiration. The fashion world needs its eccentric heroes and if he had lived now he would certainly have been applauded for his flamboyant behaviour. He reduced models to tears, fashion editors to desperation and himself to exhaustion. But out of the chaos, Coffin took some undeniably great pictures.’ - ‘Flashback’, The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 1 June 1997

‘The National Portrait Gallery aims to do for Coffin what it has already done for Beaton, Parkinson, Deakin and others from Conde Nast’s glory years. As with John Deakin, whose best photographs are the creased and splattered ones found under Francis Bacon’s bed, Coffin is being promoted as a freak who rose and fell in the commercial world. This ties in with the notion of the fashion photographer as a bohemian on the wild side of the rag trade...Extraordinarily, as the NPG will show, none of the tantrums is apparent in the work itself. There they slouch and drape themselves: models in furs, quilted satin and high strapped heels, from an age when it paid to look sniffy and not a day under 30.’ – ‘The Camera Never Dies’, Esquire, June 1997

‘Now Robin Muir, a former picture editor at Vogue who did much to save and reassess what was left, has with this exhibition restored to Coffin the public reputation he deserves...So often with fashion photography, the work is as much to do with portraiture as with fashion, and with Coffin there is no real distinction to draw between his work in the two fields. It is clear that he brought not merely the same high discrimination, judgement and technical finesse to bear in either case – his unremitting perfectionism would often reduce his models to tears – but the same aesthetic. His portrait subjects are disposed with the same formal clarity and precision as his clotheshorse models, and his models, known or anonymous, stand always in propria persona, quite themselves.’ – ‘Visions from the Vaults’, The Financial Times, 14 June 1997

Handlist

London, 1946-47

The prints and negatives of the American photographer Clifford Coffin (1913-72) were rediscovered at Vogue in London in 1986. After an arson attack destroyed his Manhattan apartment in the early sixties, these are really all that is left of a brief but brilliant career.

Though he died a forgotten figure, to his peers he was a genius. Norman Parkinson admitted that Coffin’s fashion photographs were the only other Vogue pictures he ever admired and another colleague at Vogue claimed that ‘He was the first photographer to actually think fashion, sometimes more than the editors.’ No less accomplished were his portraits for the features pages, which introduced readers for the first time to Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Arthur Miller and Lucian Freud, among others.

Starting out as a junior assistant in Vogue’s New York studio, he was sent to London in 1946, where for the dull post-war years he was considered shockingly ‘modern.’ An outspoken homosexual with a heroic appetite for self-destruction, his bad behaviour was legendary and pictures were wrung out of him at a cost. Years later, Vogue wrote, ‘Coffin was a perfectionist. Nothing was too much trouble; in his search for what he wanted he reduced models to tears, fashion editors to desperation and himself to complete exhaustion. From the rubble of emotion emerged a perfect, cool picture.’

New York and Paris, 1948-55

‘No-one ever felt Vogue fashion like Coffin did,’ remembered Vogue’s studio manager. ‘He didn’t need an editor and didn’t give a damn about anything except his pictures.’ He covered Paris collections for the magazine twice in his career – in 1948 and again in 1954. On the second occasion he used his ring light – literally a ring of tungsten bulbs set up on a tripod, which cast a shadowless light around his sitters, giving superb clarity to clothes and skin tones alike, and which he is said to have borrowed from his dentist. It was found, apparently, some years later in a cupboard in Vogue’s Paris studio by the photographer Helmut Newton who, along with others such as Guy Bourdin and David Bailey, adapted its principle to work with electronic flash.

Coffin was an intrepid talent spotter. Vogue’s editor Alisa Garland remembered that ‘one girl he met in a night club had started life in a circus being fired out of a canon – he made her look like a duchess.’ He launched the career of Elsa Martinelli years before she became an actress and helped turn Barbara Goalen and Wenda Rogerson (married to his rival Norman Parkinson) into the first supermodels. He disregarded though, a young Audrey Hepburn who was, in his opinion, too fat.

When the sixties came, Coffin found that his photographic style was no longer in demand, which, together with a drug habit he could no longer control, hastened his retirement. Towards the end of his life he lived in a simple room at the Young Men’s Christian Association in Pasadena (though a committed atheist) and died aged 58 of throat cancer in 1972. Clifford Coffin’s legacy is this cache of photographs, their beauty undiminished by the passing of time and his own obscurity.

1.  Jean Marais
(1913-98)
Actor
Paris, 10 May 1946
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

2.  Gérard Philipe (1922-59)
Actor
Paris, 9 August 1948
Vintage Print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

3.  Eugène Rubin (b. 1906)
Photographer
Paris, c. 1946
Vintage print
Courtesy of Eugène Rubin, Paris

4.  Renzo Vespignani (1924-2001)
Painter
Rome, 4 July 1946
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

5.  Clifford Coffin, Pat Kenyon and Isobel D’Orthez
London, c. September 1947
Fashion: Victor Stiebel and St John Roper
Vintage contact sheet
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

6.  Mrs Stanley Grafton Mortimer Junior (1915-78)
Fashion Editor
Paris, 1946
Fashion: Balmain
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

7.  Barbara Goalen (Mrs Nigel Campbell, 1921-2002)
Fashion model
Paris, 17 August 1948
Fashion: Fath
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

8.  Wenda Rogerson (Mrs Norman Parkinson, 1927-87)
Fashion model
Grand Trianon, Versailles, August 1948
Fashion: Dior
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

9.  Janine Klein (Mrs William Klein)
Fashion model
Cristobel Balenciaga’s private house, Paris, 17 August 1948
Fashion: Balenciaga
Modern colour copyprint
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

10. Janine Klein (Mrs William Klein)
Fashion model
Paris, 17 August 1948
Fashion: Dior
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

11. Cherry Litvinoff
Fashion model
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, 9 April 1948
Fashion: Matilda Etches
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

12. Lucian Freud (1922-2011)
Painter
London, 18 March 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

13. Patricia Cunningham (Mrs Charles Creed, 1921-2007)
Fashion model and editor
London, 11 December 1946
Fashion: Erik
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

14. Unknown Fashion Model
Paris, 1946
Fashion: Dior
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

15. Isobel Babianska
Fashion model
London, 4 December 1947
Fashion: Matilda Etches
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

16. Wenda Rogerson (Mrs Norman Parkinson, 1923-87)
Fashion model
Grosvenor Square, London, 15 April 1947
Fashion: Rahvis
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

17. Unknown Fashion Model
Studio of Louis Leygue, February 1947
Fashion: Balmain and Legroux
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

18. Clifford Coffin (1913-72)
Self-portrait
London, 26 September 1946
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

19. Leslie Caron (b. 1931)
Actress
Paris, 15 December 1948
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

20. Unknown Fashion Model
Paris, 1954
Fashion: Dior
Vintage tear-sheet
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

21. Nancy Berg
Fashion model
Paris, July 1954
Fashion: Dior
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

22. Helen Connor
Fashion model
London, 23 August 1954
Fashion: Fath
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

23. Jean Patchett (1926-2002)
Fashion model
Los Angeles, 1951
Fashion: a striped rebozo
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

24. Unknown Models
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Heim and Piguet
Modern copyprint
Vogue,Les Publications Condé Nast S.A.

25. Sophie Malgat (Mrs Anatole Litvak)
Fashion model
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Albouy
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

26. Unknown Fashion Model
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Fath
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

27. Unknown Fashion Model
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Jean Dessès
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

28. Christian Dior (1905-57)
Fashion designer
Paris, c. February 1947
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

29. Unknown Models
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Heim and Piguet
Modern copyprint
Vogue,Les Publications Condé Nast S.A.

30. Unknown Fashion Model
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Balenciaga
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

31. Unknown Fashion Models
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Lanvin and Molyneux
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

32. Sophie Malgat (Mrs Anatole Litvak) and Unknown Fashion Model
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Schiaparelli
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

33. Unknown Fashion Model
The Louvre, Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Lelong
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

34. Anne Moffatt
Fashion model
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Dior
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

35. Wenda Rogerson (Mrs Norman Parkinson, 1923-87)
Fashion model
Paris, February 1948
Fashion: Schiaparell
Modern copyrprint
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

36. Clifford Coffin and Isobel D’Orthez
Fashion editor
London, c. 1947
Vintage contact sheet
Courtesy of Vicomtesse d’Orthez, London

37. Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
Writer
Paris, 17 February 1949
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

38. Clifford Coffin (1913-72)
Self-portrait
London, c. 1947
Vintage print
Courtesy of Vicomtesse d’Orthez, London

39. Clifford Coffin (1913-72)
Self-portrait
London, 27 August 1947
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

40. Unknown Fashion Models
Los Angeles, 1949
Fashion: Cole; Altman; Caltex; Catalina
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

41. Lisa Fonssagrieves (Mrs Irving Penn, 1911-92)
Fashion model
New York, 1951
Jewellery: Van Cleef and Arpels
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

42. Mary Jane Russell (Mrs Edward Russell 1926-2003)
Fashion model
New York, 1950
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

43. Suzy Parker (1935-2003)
Fashion model
New York, 1953
Fashion: Vogue patterns
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

44. Unknown Fashion Model
New York, 1952
Fashion: David Crystal
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

45. Countess Corti
Apartment of Edgar Kouffman, New York, 1950
Fashion: Janice Milan
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

46. Mai Zetterling (1925-94)
Actress and film director
London, 9 January 1948
Fashion: Michael Sherard
Vintage contact strip
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

47. Evelyn Tripp (1928-1995)
Fashion model
New York, 1955
Fashion: Leslie Morris for Bergdorf Goodman
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

48. Jean Patchett (1926-2002) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Fashion model; writer
Finca Vigiá, Cuba (CHK) 1950
Fashion: B.H. Wragge
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

49. Piero Fornasetti (1913-88)
Designer
Rome, 30 July 1946
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

50. Princess Cyril Troubetskoy
Paris, c. October 1946
Fashion: Balmain
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

51. Svetlana Beriosova (1932-98)
Ballerina
London, September 1954
Jewellery: Cartier
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

52. Joy Parker (1922-2012)
Actress
Stratford-upon-Avon, 14 April 1947
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

53. Lady Diana Cooper (Viscountess Norwich 1892-1986)
Paris, 26 May6 1948
Fashion: Molyneux
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

54. Louis Jouvet (1887-1951)
Actor
Paris, February 1948
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

55. Gloria Swanson (1897-1983)
Actress
New York, 27 October 1949
Vintage print
Glamour,The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

56. Mrs Sachverell Sitwell (Georgia Doble, 1905-80)
London, 17 September 1947
Fashion: Adrienne
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

57. Comtesse Alain de la Falaise (Maxime Birley, 1922-2009)
Paris, 15 October 1948
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

58. Tennessee Williams (Thomas Lanier Williams 1911-83)
Playwright
London, 15 June 1948
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

59. Terence Rattigan (1911-77)
Playwright
London, 8 September 1947
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

60. Terence Rattigan (1911-77)
Playwright
London, 8 September 1947
Vintage contact sheet
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

61. Alberto Moravia (Alberto Pincherele 1907-90)
Writer
Rome, 5 July 1946
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

62. Richard Attenborough (Lord Attenborough of Richmond Upon Thames b. 1923)
Actor and director
London, 16 June 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

63. Geraldine Fitzgerald (1912-2005)
Actress
London, 10 July 1947
Fashion: Tico
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

64. (George) Norman Douglas (1868-1952)
Writer
Capri, 4 June 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

65. Vivien Leigh (1913-67)
Actress
London, 19 December 1947
Fragment of vintage tear contact sheet
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

66. Paulette Goddard (1905-90)
Actress
London, 17 June 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

67. Beatrix Lehmann (1903-79)
Actress
Stratford-upon-Avon, 14 April 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

68. Elsa Martinelli (b. 1933)
Fashion model and actress
Paris, July 1954
Fashion: Givenchy
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

69. Deborah Kerr (1921-2007)
Actress
London, 29 October 1947
Fashion: Thaarup
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

70. Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
Playwright
New York, 28 April 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

71. Gregory Peck (1916-2003)
Actor
New York, c. 1945
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

72. Franco Gentilini (1909-81)
Painter
Rome, 5 July 1946
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

73. Roberto Rossellini (1906-77)
Film director
Capri, 4 June 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

74. Jane Henderson (1925-1960)
Actress
London, 23 October 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

75. Unknown fashion Model
London, 1954
Fashion: Herbert Johnson
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

76. Unknown Fashion Models
London, 1954
Fashion: ‘jewel’ evening dresses
Modern prints
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

77. Laurence Olivier (Baron Olivier of Brighton, 1907-89)
Actor and director
The Old Vic Theatre, London, 27 August 1947
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

78. Clifford Coffin (1913-72)
Self-portrait
London c. 1947
Vintage print
Courtesy of Vicomtesse d’Orthez, London

79. Barbara Goalen (Mrs Nigel Campbell, 1921-2002)
Fashion model
Paris, 17 August 1948
Fashion: Dior
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

80. Henri Matisse (1896-1954)
Painter
Venice, 15 February 1949
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

81. Countess ‘Miki’ Visconti (Simonetta Visconti, b. 1922)
Fashion designer
Rome, 29 July 1946
Fashion: Ventura
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

82. Celia Johnson (1908-82)
Actress
London, 7 October 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

83. Renato Gusto (1912-87)
Painter
Rome, 3 July 1946
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

84. Leonor Fini (1980-96)
Painter
Rome, 3 July 1946
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

85. Clifford Coffin (1913-72)
London, c. September 1947
Fashion: St John Roper
Vintage contact sheet
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

86. Clifford Coffin (1913-72)
Vogue studio, London, Christmas 1947
Photographer unknown
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

87. Clifford Coffin (1913-72)
Self-portrait, The Old Vic Theatre
London, 27 August 1947
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

88. Capri
c. June 1947
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

89. Simonetta di Cesaro (Simonetta Visconti, b. 1922)
Fashion designer
New York, March 1951
Fashion: Simonetta
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

90. Clifford Coffin (1913-72)
Self-portrait
London, 26 September 1946
Modern print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

91. Patricia Cunningham (Mrs Charles Creed, 1921-2007)
Fashion model and editor
London, 11 December 1946
Fashion: Thaarup
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

92. Patricia Cunningham (Mrs Charles Creed, 1921-2007)
Fashion model and editor
London, 11 December 1946
Fashion: Legroux
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd

93. Peter Brook (b. 1925)
Theatre director
London, 12 June 1946
Vintage print
Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd